Skywoman Stories: Moon Valley Farm
Christina Couch | December 25, 2022
In December, the Skywoman community hosted Moon Valley Farm (MVF) in our "Skywoman Stories" series - monthly sessions highlighting projects dedicated to food sovereignty and collective economics. Emma Jagoz, first generation farmer and founder of Moon Valley Farm, joined us to share her experiences and advice on first leasing various plots of farmland for eight years, to now owning a booming 25-acre vegetable farm.
Moon Valley Farm is a certified organic, specialty vegetable and herb farm in Frederick County, Maryland. Their year-round production is targeted towards Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) members, restaurants, and institutions. But they don't got at it alone. The team uniquely partners with other Maryland farmers to offer customers a much wider variety than Moon Vally Farm can produce on its own.
Snapshot of Moon Valley Farm
Emma never thought farming would be her full-time career but the more she studied activism and food systems on a global scale, the more apparent it became that the most tangible issues she could work on existed right in her own county. Emma says “Moon Valley Farm is my journey to transform my desire to work toward global social justice to local action.”
Emma launched Moon Valley Farm in 2012 with "no money, no experience, two tiny kids, a slice of borrowed land and a vision to raise [her] kids and unite [her] community - with vegetables.” Today, MVF produces for 500+ Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) customers and 100+ restaurants and institutions in DC, Maryland, and NoVA. They also grow seedlings for gardeners in the spring, and serve their county school system with hyper-local produce!
When she started back in 2012, Emma did not have enough cash, experience, systems, assets, nor a track record to purchase her own land. Looking back, trying to purchase land in the first five years of farming would have handicapped the growth of her new operation. From 2012 - 2014 she invested a small amount of personal cash, maybe $500-$1000, and otherwise bootstrapped - getting free materials on Craigslist and bartering. She took out 2 small family loans for some additional capital for equipment and supplies. Then in 2015, Moon Valley Farm took out it’s first official loan with a local credit union for a high tunnel and a BCS walk-behind tractor. This doubled sales immediately. Then in 2018, the farm took out it’s second official loan with Mid-Atlantic Farm Credit to purchase a tractor and implements. This also double sales, making lenders eager to support the farm's growth moving forward.
So Why Farm?
For folks debating the launch of a farm operation it’s crucial to identify why you want to get into farming in the first place. This idea takes me back to a poll Chris Newman shared early on during a Skywoman community meeting - he was trying to have us think about the true reasons behind our desired involvement in food sovereignty work. Is it to continue or revive a family farm operation, to fulfill lifestyle needs and desires, an interest in improving food security and equity? The point is to recognize that involvement in food sovereignty work does NOT mean you need to own a farm business. In fact, there is a huge need for support of farming and food sovereignty projects from non-farming folks.
If after careful consideration farming is indeed the path you wish to take, check out Chris's article, The Best Way to Start Farming where he recommends developing a strong market first and then establishing a farm later, of which you can plug into your existing market.
For Emma, after having two children she realized owning a farm would be an ideal opportunity to raise them primarily outside, something she feels is important to a healthy childhood. Farming would allow her to:
Work from home
Go home easily if the children needed a nap or a meal
Live out her personal values
Demonstrate hard work
Eat healthy food
Share with her community
Be scrappy and resourceful
Emma found that CSAs and Chefs were a really good fit for her lifestyle choices and desires to: not have deliveries or markets on the weekends, have Sundays off for her kids, grow and sell year-round, operate a kid-friendly farm, farm with other people, provide enough money to her family with no other source of income, run a community-supported business, and sell directly to consumers. Keep in mind that fitting into this niche did not happen overnight and Moon Valley tried many different products and markets throughout the years before landing here.
Emma leased land for the first 8 years before purchasing her current 25-acre property 3 years ago. She utilized leased land to grow her business, establish a customer base, develop systems, and invest first in assets and her employees instead of land. Emma shares her story because she sees a ton of hesitation in the farming world when it comes to leasing space. Her presentation will hopefully help beginner farmers to consider leasing land as a viable option for success and a stepping stone for eventually purchasing property.
During her Skywoman Stories session, Emma presented the following 8 steps for leveraging leased land to eventually purchase:
Get crystal clear about your life AND farming goals
Be a successful tenant by creating a clear lease agreement with realistic expectations
Establish a customer base
Find your niche
Figure out your ideal scale
Establish relationships with lenders
Create systems - financial AND production
You can dig more deeply into her presentation of these 8 steps but here are some key takeaways:
Defining Lifestyle and Farm Goals
When establishing your goals, be real about how much time you need off, when you want to get up, when you want to end work, and what your life obligations are. These will become the parameters for all future decisions on: where you will farm, who you will sell to, what opportunities you will take on or pass up, what your niche is, and how many people can work with/for you.
Developing a Lease Agreement
A clear lease agreement should include: specified details of the leased area, water access/usage or lack thereof, bathroom usage, storage or equipment guidelines, parking, out-of-bounds areas or days/times, terms: recommended at least 2 years, right to harvest once planted, financial terms/barter terms, aesthetic/due diligence requirements, and what to do should someone terminate the relationship.
Remember to only agree to land that works for you! Emma was offered dozens of pieces of property and said no to many. “Be a chooser”, she says - land is out there even if you don’t see it yet.
Determining Your Ideal Business Scale
Refer to your lifestyle needs first - Do you want a year-round salary provided solely from the farm? Or plan to have supplemental income in the off-season? Are you even interested in growing and selling year-round, or do you plan to take a few months off over the winter? Then, align your lifestyle goals with market opportunities - what do people in your area want and what grows well on the land? Which markets best align with the time of year you plan to grow in? Once you decide the scale that feels right to you, connect with local growers who are operating at that level - understand what they’ve done to get to that scale and the type of lifestyle they are living. Reach out, build connections, they may even be willing to mentor you.
Separating from the Business
You, as an individual, do not need to be 100% of the business, and in fact, it should be able to run on its own as a well-oiled machine. Should you, as a founder, need to step away for short periods of time, how can you ensure the business can continue operating successfully? Putting the right team in place and defining processes and procedures is a good start start.
Establishing Financial Systems
Develop and maintain budgets, sales targets, financial projections, cash flow charts, strong bookkeeping, and organized tax records. Decide who will build all of these reports and when/how will they be used. It does not all need to done by the farm owner, but all items must be in place nonetheless!
Establishing Production Systems
When designing your production system think long term - is your current production style sustainable, physically? Mentally? For your family? For your employees? For you? If not, what would make it so? Determine what equipment, supplies and skillsets you will need to keep your production viable for the long term and understand the costs and requirements to get there.
Why Buy Land?
Eventually, Emma chose to buy land once her long-term business goals no longer aligned with those of her initial lease agreement. Specifically, her landlords were against the establishment of permanent structures, such as barns and greenhouses, both of which were essential to Emma’s growth and desired year-round business model. She also wanted to invest in the long-term of her farm’s soil health and to live on the property, both of which are difficult to establish on short 2-3 year leases.
In an effort to widen Moon Valley’s year round offerings and provide a full-diet product list, the farm has partnered with a number of local producers and makers who produce/sell year round and align with the farm’s overall goals. Through partnerships Moon Valley is able to provide:
Gourmet mushrooms from King Mushrooms,
Organic eggs from Nick’s Organic Farm,
Fruit from 78 Acres,
Veggies from Sassafras Creek Farm,
Grains from Next Step Produce,
Beans and oats from Purple Mountain Farm,
Organic sourdough from Twin Bears Bakery,
Raw honey from Chesapeake Queen Co. and more.
Year-round sales allow Emma to keep her customers, have consistent income, keep employees (less rehiring/retraining), make mortgages/loan payments on time, and meet customer and restaurant demand in a region where many small-scale producers take the winter off.
The producer partners listed above are typically market farmers, who may also do wholesale, and view the CSA as a middle price point between the two outlets. Moon Valley is an attractive sales outlet because of the guaranteed stability that consistent weekly CSA customers provide, this is not necessarily the case with wholesale and farmers markets.
When thinking through who would make a strong farm partner, Emma recommends analyzing whether or not you can make a margin purchasing their farm goods at the price they offer and “reselling” them through the CSA. Here are some questions to ask yourself, and the grower/maker:
Is it a product your customers want?
How is it packaged?
If I am reselling this product through the CSA do I have to touch/wash/repackage the product or is it just a quick sort and slapping on a label?
Is it a push or pull sale? Meaning does the product require a push towards the customer for a quick sale, or is the goal to develop a deeper relationship that instead attracts the customer to the product over time?
What is the product’s shelf-life? The longer the shelf-life, the more you can afford to accept a lower margin because you have more time to move the product versus a highly perishable product with a short shelf-life.
All of the items above will affect profitability and should be deciding factors on whether or not you source specific items for your CSA box. Labor intensive products that require extra washing/repacking once they get to your location will eat into your time and revenue. Instead, encourage producers to provide the product in whatever “box ready” condition aligns best with your operation and distribution strategy.
Structure of the CSA Program
Subscribers to the MVF CSA can choose to receive boxes every week as a Perennial subscriber (50 weeks) or a Peak Season subscriber (25 weeks June-Nov). Through the 2022 season, Moon Valley was a “get-what-you-get” CSA where customers received whatever was ripe and available. However, beginning in 2023, subscribers will have the option to swap out items for a more customized box. Customers can also opt for skipping or donating shares at no charge, as long as ample notice is given.
Moon Valley Farm offers four veggie share options:
Small: 4-6 items for individuals or couples who cook a few times a week
Medium: 7-9 items for individuals or couples who cook a lot
Large: 11-15 items for individuals, couples or families who cook regularly
Ugly Veggies: 7-9 items of mishappen and quirky vegetables for experienced cooks and/or home gardeners
In addition to the weekly veggie share, customers can order the following add-ons from Moon Valley's farm partners:
Coffee - weekly blend of coffee beans, roasters choice!
Egg Share - a dozen free range brown eggs each week.
Fruit Share (single or double) - local fruit delivered weekly such as strawberries, peaches, nectarines, apples, pears, grapes, watermelon, cherries, and plums.
Microgreen Share - weekly bag of custom grown microgreens such as petite kales, radish, peas, mustards, and broccoli.
Mushrooms - weekly bag of Farmer’s Choice mushrooms including gourmet medley, portobello, oyster, maitake, king oyster, cremini, shitake, and lion’s mane.
Sourdough Bread - weekly surprise loaf of bread including rosemary, fig and walnut, polenta and garlic, sunflower and flax.
Customers can pay for the year’s products upfront or opt for weekly payments of which their card is charged each Monday for that week’s share. To get an idea of pricing, the graphic on the write lists each share's price on a weekly or per-order basis.
Emma also established an Online Farmer’s Market for a la carte purchases, targeting customers who are interested in these add-ons but do not wish to sign up for a weekly subscription. All CSA members have access to these online market products in addition to bulk produce for pickling/canning/juicing, salt, local grains and beans, herbal tea blends, seasonal plants, and farm merchandise. The store is updated every Friday by noon, orders must be placed by Sunday at 11:59p, and there is a $30 minimum.
Selling to these 600+ CSA customers means a ton of delivery stops for a relatively low amount of money. To help improve these delivery margins, Emma decided to add some larger customers along the way, that's where restaurants and institutions come in. These customers help her move a lot of product through one stop, thus improving logistical metrics.
In addition to the Online Farmers Market, Moon Valley Farm also offers a Veggies Page that Chefs and institutions can browse and search by seasonality or product name. Emma and her team update the product list with new items on a weekly basis. Clicking onto each product will provide information on crop varieties, storage tips, recipe ideas, and seasonality.
So how does the MVF team manage to get product to 600+ customers each week? The team offers pick-up locations throughout the DC, Baltimore, NoVA and Frederick areas on Tuesdays through Fridays ranging from 2-9p and customers do not make it in time to pick up their shares, they are forfeited for the week.
Home delivery is also available for an added weekly fee of $8. MVF leans on a delivery software, Routific, which is integrated with Local Food Marketplace (LFM) to make this all possible. Although LFM is not naturally a subscription software, it does still offer some support for a CSA model, albeit clunky in Emma’s experience. Partnering producers are also provided their own log in for LFM so they can consistently update their inventory, even if that means updating numbers from their phone while they are out in the field. The upside is Emma can then share the backend inventory with restaurants, CSA members and institutional customers so they shop with real-time availability. The platform prints shipping labels, designs the most-efficient delivery routes, auto texts customers 2 hours before delivery and provides GPS tracking of the drivers for the MVF admin team. A similar delivery software recommended by Chris Newman, owner and operator of Sylvanaqua Farms, is Optimoroute.
Delivery drivers are in a stressful position as is, so it’s really important to think through how to optimize driver well-being. This means balancing driver schedules under 8-9 hours while keeping the trucks as full as possible. Any additional hours can cause drivers to become overwhelmed, stressed out, or agitated. Remember, your delivery drivers are the face of your business in this model.
Emma has learned that no software platform is perfect, and she’s yet to use one that can do everything her business requires. So, she’s currently working on developing her own. Stay tuned!
Today, Moon Valley Farm employs about 15 people year-round. Emma prefers full-time employees because they spend enough time around the systems to get fully immersed and are less likely to get lost in the progress of projects - which is typically the case for part-timers. All of her employees work between 40-50 hours each week, she personally exceeds that but is trying to get better at stepping away from the farm to uphold her commitments and lifestyle goals.
Emma describes her organizational structure as a butterfly: One wing is the production team, the other wing the packshed, and the center body focuses on administrative tasks and sales. Some folks float between the two wings depending on the time of year and can also provide support on things like FSMA, SOPs, organic certification, compliance, and people management. The “body” of the butterfly is the glue of the operation, working on sales, marketing, customer service, accounting, building spreadsheets and more. This team typically remains in the office and does not float out to do field work. However, when field work quiets down in the colder months some of the production team members may bounce around on infrastructure building, packing, and maybe even support the admin team.
As the founder and owner of MVF, Emma spends most of her time at her desk managing her team and connecting with partners/customers. This is where she is able to provide the highest value to her business. Her ability to delegate tasks to folks who may be more suited is really beneficial to operating a strong business and reducing burn out.
Moon Valley’s Farming Practices
Moon Valley is certified organic through the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) and Real Organic Certified as well. They follow organic practices under the guidelines of the National Organic Program (NOP). Emma integrates methods such as crop rotation, cover cropping, planting beneficial insect strips, integrated-pest-management (IPM), planting live mulches, excluding pests with row covers, strategic crop timing, succession planting, crop selection, and releasing beneficial insects.
Emma tests her soils annually and works with a Nutrient Management specialist to develop strategies for healthy soils and plants on the farm. Improving biodiversity on the farm looks like creating purple martin homes, brush piles for snakes, hedges for birds and small mammals, bat homes, and an apiary.
Moon Valley Farm is located in the Chesapeake Bay area which is really great for food production based on soil and climate. However, with over 30k farms close by, the region is highly off-track for environmental goals due to the over-application of phosphorus and nitrogen that are running off of farms and damaging the local watershed.
Constant unpredictability and a lack of patterns are making it so much harder to farm, causing Emma to focus on building resiliency on the farm and regionalizing the food system. Emma defines a “Resilient Farm” as one that focuses on:
Farming organically with long-term stewardship and land improvement
Crop diversification and selection
Investing in climate resilient infrastructure
Utilizing technology and tools
Year-round production with the support of high tunnels and greenhouses
Collaborating with other farmers
Land stewardship is a constant push and pull. In the long-term, cover cropping is an excellent way to improve soil health but Emma can’t make cash off of this crop and the space could be used to draw in revenue in the short-term.
Paperwork and record keeping are a massive lift. Especially for organic certification, FSMA, GAP certification, and nutrient management to name a few.
Staying within Moon Valley’s budget while keeping up with logistical needs (packing, delivery, cleanliness) has proven to be tough balancing act.
Building a Food-Driven Community
Emma is curating a community of home cooks, foodies, environmentalists, chefs, “locavores”, and neighbors looking to eat locally grown food. On the Moon Valley Farm website, Emma has a “Meet Your Farmers” tab where folks can learn about each partner farmer and/or maker, what they grow, where they’re located, and what their growing practices are. She even encourages customers to contact the farmer to ask questions and arrange visits!
Emma leans on Mailchimp to communicate with CSA members through a weekly e-newsletter including a list of what's in the farm share that week, alongside coinciding recipe ideas and farm happenings. Also, Moon Valley Farm has a facebook group for neighbors to connect with each other, share recipes, enjoy photos of products from farmers/makers, learn storage tips, veggie hacks and more. Join the conversation!
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